Ventura needs to do his homework

If any of my students heard the media sound bites from Jesse Ventura’s recent speeches to several higher education audiences, they should be wondering about this strange bedfellow with whom they’ve hooked up after the wild political party. For those who missed the latest pearl of wisdom from our new governor, he reiterated a platitude he first proposed during his campaign, but which was overlooked by the hundreds of thousands of young voters who jumped on his bandwagon. “If you’re smart enough to get into college,” he told them, “you’re smart enough to figure out how to pay for it.” People don’t appreciate an education they don’t have to pay for, he explained patiently. Student loans are not as bad as grants, but don’t look to government to take care of you. Furthermore, students who have kids should not get any extra help, such as subsidized day care, because if you make mistakes, you should pay for them.
It’s not a new lesson but it’s worth articulating again: Be careful what you wish for. Jesse Ventura is a populist, someone who believes in the wisdom of the common people, usually himself. He’s never pretended to be a progressive, like Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who believes government has a role in bettering the lives of individuals because, ultimately, it benefits society and public life. Ventura made few promises, but seemed eager to fight for the little guy, although the specifics were vague. He was against “career politicians” and gave the impression he would add some badly needed color to a gray Minnesota political landscape.
Well, he has; but if my students were walk-in guests to the open house he hosted during his campaign, they will now be pressing their noses against the window of the party that will soon begin with guests who are just as common but aren’t whining for money for a luxury-like school. Instead, they will be offering to come up with money, not in return for anything of course, but just to keep the party going. Who needs to go to class when you can party all semester long?
If Ventura’s campaign had been a course, I would have graded my students harshly for failing to take good notes. He’d been giving the same lecture over and over again. They were either asleep in class or they failed to understand the realities of their own situation. The vast majority of college students are assisted by some kind of financial aid. That’s after we take into account the fact that those who attend public institutions of higher learning already get a financial break because two-thirds of the real cost of their education is paid for by the state; their tuition pays the other one-third. Maybe they truly believe they are smart enough to find the money some other way; maybe they forgot about the financial aid they all receive and count on.
Whatever the reasons, I feel compelled to advocate for them even if they don’t themselves. I think they have forgotten about middle-class welfare. They like Ventura’s rhetoric against corporate welfare, welfare for career politicians and welfare for the poor who seem unable or unwilling to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. But it’s easy to forget the welfare they and their parents receive: college assistance, home mortgage deductions and other tax breaks, a variety of social security benefits, to name a few. What Ventura has forgotten is that certain kinds of welfare have their place for us all: the poor, the promising and the productive. The poor need a safety net, the promising need a jump-start and the productive need incentives to help the rest of us. “Special interests groups” has become a dirty term, but, in effect, that’s what all Americans are. The term is a misnomer, however, if we consider that many special interests are in the best interests of us all.
According to Ventura’s logic, a college education benefits only the individual who acquires it. It’s not rocket science to point out that this is simply not true. A highly educated citizenry, work force and society pay off in untold ways for generations. His logic is stretched even further when he determines that paying for one’s mistakes, e.g., children, means being denied further education. That makes even less sense. Who could need it more? If the bottom line is the cost of subsidizing day care, his ground is even shakier. Why is that more problematical than excellent programs such as Head Start? Society pays for its children one way or another, and support for students who are parents is not giving them a free ride: It’s a smart investment by a capitalistic society, which he so passionately believes in. The only such students I’ve seen fail are those whose support is too penurious, not too generous.
Lastly, I wonder how these “smart” students are supposed to figure out a way to pay for college. College tuition has risen disproportionately to inflation during the past 30 years. It now costs about 10 times what it did when Ventura attended a community college for one quarter. The minimum wage is only about three times what it was then. That means that today’s students must work about three times as many hours to pay tuition costs as they once did. What is the “smart” thing to do? Take out more loans so they’re burdened with debt loads that are the equal of a home mortgage? College debt is already a national scandal, without making it worse. I would suggest one reason tuition rates are so high is that it’s been too easy for colleges to raise tuition rates when they knew it would always be accompanied by a more generous limit on student loans. Perhaps college students should all become professional wrestlers.
The “special interest groups” of parents and enlightened members of society have fought long and hard to institute financial aid for higher education because it’s a good idea. It’s not a perfect system, but it provides the flexibility a dynamic society need to make individuals’ dreams come true. That’s not something to dismiss lightly. The party’s over and classes have resumed. I’d like to invite the nation’s most well-known governor to visit a college classroom, not as a guest speaker, but as a guest listener, and allow students to lecture him on how financial aid has made it possible for them to achieve not only their personal dreams of self-fulfillment, but our country’s need for educated citizens. It may be the necessary beginning of an authentic, long-term relationship that goes beyond sound bites between him and the young people who supported him so loyally. If he dismisses them, he should count on their flunking him in the next election.
Louise Mengelkoch teaches composition and is a graduate student in the liberal arts master’s program, while on leave from her position as an assistant professor of journalism at Bemidji State University.